Behind our happy-student-filled, art-covered buildings, independent schools are complex organizations, operating with dual purposes. They are educational institutions with missions to help grow and nurture students to become good citizens and human beings prepared for success, no small feat in and of itself. But to do so effectively, our schools must also operate as efficient businesses.
In good cases, a strong partnership between the head of school and business officer ensures that a school balances these two aims in today’s context. In the best possible case, these partners also push each other to look ahead and create the effective educational institutions and businesses of tomorrow. The different perspectives and different career paths of these two roles (typically, education and finance) are sometimes experienced as impediments to good communication. However, it is actually the differences in ways of thinking that can lead to greater possibilities for next-level strategic thinking and execution, especially when both come with the right intentions.
In the last 25 years, the external market forces facing independent schools have grown more complex. These forces include growing competition from more types of schools; changing economic conditions and widening income gaps among prospective families; increased accountability requirements for nonprofits; rising school costs in areas such as personnel, counseling, and security; among others. In this increasingly complex environment, the role of business officer has grown more essential to the overall health of the school. So too has the business officer’s partnership with the head.
Like peanut butter and chocolate in the old Reese’s ads, the different skill sets and perspectives of the head and the business officer are better together. The business officer’s strengths in financial modeling, data analysis and attention to detail can combine with the head’s vision and deep understanding of students, teachers, parents and school culture to develop more robust strategies. That fine arts center can be built with transparent plans, avoiding excessive debt; compensation can be improved in a sustainable manner; programmatic investments can be made in the optimal sequence for maximum return on mission and long-term financial health. The business officer can help the head “see around corners,” studying the details pointing to early indicators in the data, giving the leadership team time to respond effectively to emerging issues before they get too big.
In our work with school leaders, we’ve seen such strong partnerships in action, and they often share the characteristics of mutual respect, frequent and open communication, and candor. Most important, they have a foundation of trust — trust built on small steps taken every day toward a shared mission and vision. Trust is always important, but even more so in uncertain and fast-changing times.
Just as this partnership between head and business manager moves schools forward, likewise the partnership between NAIS and NBOA has strengthened both organizations. Some of our recent collaborations include:
- DASL-BIIS Data Collection Partnership (established 2021)
- Composite Financial Index Calculator (developed 2017)
- “The 2022 Independent School Cost-Per-Enrollment Study” (research report, 2022)
- Joint filing of amicus briefs on Title IX cases (2022), tax legislation (2017) and Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) overtime rules (2016)
- Many articles, webinars and live programs, such as “The Business Case for DEI: The Business of Economic Diversity” (Net Assets article, 2022 and related webinar, 2022); “Changing Faces: Demographics of Independent Schools” (Net Assets article, 2019), “A Partnership Built To Last” (Independent School article, 2020)
We are grateful for the trust our two organizations have placed in each other and in our shared vision of serving our members and supporting the independent school sector.